The national adult education budget tender has been “further undermined” after the government handed a last-minute contract to a provider and seemingly revoked another.
In July, the Department for Education named 55 training providers who won a contract in its AEB procurement worth £75 million in total.
The DfE then announced on Thursday it has awarded an “additional” AEB contract for an undisclosed amount to The Portland Training Company, taking the total number of winners back up to 55.
The department and Portland Training have refused to comment on the case. TLG Business Services did not respond to FE Week at the time of going to press.
It is therefore unclear why TLG Business Services is no longer a national AEB contractor, or why Portland Training has suddenly been given a contract months after the tender results were determined.
The outcome of the government’s AEB tender is also currently being challenged through the courts by Learning Curve Group, one of several major training providers that had bids rejected.
‘This further undermines the process’
Paul Warner, Association of Employment and Learning Providers’ director of strategy and business development, said: “We always welcome allocations being given to quality providers, but this change raises more questions than it answers. There were already concerns raised previously over this procurement round, and this further undermines the process.
“As a result, many providers will now be left wondering if this delayed award is an indicator of a wider issue in the way bids were they originally scored. This very much illustrates and reiterates the need for a frank and transparent discussion about how these processes work.”
A notice from the DfE about its decision to award Portland Training a late contract only said: “The relative characteristics of this incremental award are consistent with those of other successful tenderers.”
A 10-day voluntary period commenced on September 7. The contract will be entered into on September 19.
Karen Thompson, operations director at Portland Training, told FE Week: “We’re delighted that we got the outcome. It means we can continue to support learners back into employment. But the actual process of getting it I can’t comment on.”
Portland Training is judged ‘good’ by Ofsted and won a national AEB contract for £1.7 million in the last AEB tender in 2021.
TLG Business Services has never been inspected. DfE criteria for the AEB tender did however welcome bids from new providers that are not yet Ofsted registered.
In 2021/22, the provider held subcontracts worth just over £100,000 with South Tyneside Council.
AELP director of policy Simon Ashworth told his members last month that “on reflection”, the performance and quality thresholds for bids were “set too low”.
From the 2023 competition, 15 of the winners were awarded almost the maximum individual amount of £2.5 million, including Realise Learning and Employment Ltd, The Skills Network and Let Me Play Ltd.
Three of those 15 big winners – Prevista Ltd, Aspire Sporting Academy Ltd, and Pathway First Ltd – are judged ‘requires improvement’ by Ofsted. A further two – The Construction Skills People Ltd and Twin Training International Limited – have only had an early monitoring visit.
The lowest value contract awarded was to Logistics Skills & Consultancy Ltd, which received £236,580.
ESFA officials were delayed in commencing the contracts due a legal challenge launched by the Learning Curve Group, which imposed an “automatic suspension” in August. Learning Curve Group has since given permission for the suspension to be lifted.
The provider group, which has seven offshoots, has set out plans to make 30 of its 1,000 staff members redundant due to the bid failure.
However, Learning Curve Group is still hopeful of a positive outcome from the legal case, which is seeking a re-run of the procurement as well as damages.
The legal challenge claims the group was “deprived of a real chance of winning a contract” and the agency had “unlawfully failed to create or retain lawful, sufficient contemporaneous records of the reasons for the scores awarded”.
Chief executive Brenda McLeish said the court case is ongoing and added: “We’re being forced into unfair redundancies due to the Department for Education’s unlawful decision to refuse our bid.
“We’re losing good staff and good people. We’ve been put into an unfortunate situation that we don’t want to be in.”
*[UPDATE: After this article was published the DfE published a separate Contracts Finder page for TLG Business Services’ contract award, taking the total number of AEB tender winners up to 56. The DfE claimed: “Publication on contracts finder takes place after signing of the contracts by both parties. The difference in timing is as a result of the automatic suspension.”]